In WSJ. Magazine’s series “12 for ’21,” we highlight a dozen of the most creative artists and entertainers working today—all poised to have a breakout 2021.
One of the writer Brandon Taylor’s earliest memories is of his mother snapping on her rubber gloves as she hunched over strange bathtubs. She scrubbed surfaces, cleared food waste, found forgotten hair clips, buttons and magazines left by the men and women who passed through the hotel in Prattville, Alabama, where she worked as a housekeeper for decades, with Taylor and his brother and cousins occasionally tagging along. “Sometimes we think there are people who are born to be main characters,” Taylor says, “and then there are the stock characters in our lives. I come from a long line of them.”
Taylor’s literary rise is best described by the perennial Hemingway quote, “Gradually and then suddenly.” After a lifetime of observing and living as a self-described background character, Taylor, 31, wrote his first novel, 2020’s Real Life, in a five-week creative paroxysm. It was shortlisted for a Booker Prize, and the musician and actor Kid Cudi recently signed on to star in its film adaptation, with Taylor adapting the script.
His first collection of short stories, Filthy Animals, is out in June. He has sold and is finalizing two more novels: Group Show (which follows five art museum assistants in Madison, Wisconsin, as they navigate their lives, the contemporary art world and their narcissistic boss) and The Late Americans (about a group of writers, dancers and artists in a setting that seems loosely based on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). More than half of the stories in Filthy Animals, he estimates, were written over a single week. “When I get a first line, I’ve got it. The first line comes with everything. The first line contains the voice, the story, the POV, the tense, the everything,” he says.
Taylor was born in Prattville, on the outskirts of Montgomery. Early on he realized he fit neither into the background scenery nor into his family. In pre-K, his teacher thought he was lying about being from Alabama given his curious lack of a Southern accent. (“Everyone in my family has a very thick, very particular Southern Black accent. Even when I was a child, everyone was, like, ‘Oh, no, no, you’re not like us.’ ”) He knew from a young age that he was gay. His mother forbade him from pursuing his interest in ballet, assuming it would feminize him. His obsession with dance came in part from an interest in its beauty and elegance but also from its insistence on precision and process. He attended Auburn University at Montgomery and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he did his respective undergraduate and graduate studies in chemistry and biochemistry. He dropped out before obtaining his doctorate in order to study creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.